This post is part of my april autism series for autism acceptance month. Visit the first post here for links to the rest of the series!
I still remember the first time I heard of autism, although I don’t remember exactly how old I was (I think I was younger than 10). My dad was talking about one of his coworkers who had twins, telling my mom that while one of the children was developing normally, the other didn’t speak and liked to watch objects spin instead of playing with them in a typical way. My major impression was that autism was a sad and life-ruining thing (probably because my dad said it was sad), but I didn’t really understand what was so wrong about this little boy’s way of being and developing. In hindsight, I think this was the first time I realized that there was a “normal” way to be and that there could be something wrong about being different.
In the years since then, I’ve learned a lot more about what autism actually is: not a spectre of damaged children unable to connect and interact as humans, but a different neurological operating system that manifests in a fairly consistent range of behavioral patterns. Interestingly, these behaviors do not include either intellectual or language impairments, although both of these can present along with autism in an individual. Instead, autistic differences center around areas of social communication, sensory processing, and cognitive focus (including executive functioning). Autistic development is not necessarily disordered – it just proceeds on a different timeline than normal. Autistic ways of thinking, of processing sensory information, of handling emotions in the self and others, are not broken – just different.
The medical definition of autism can of course be found in the DSM-V, and I believe it is good to read and understand that definition even if it does portray autism in a pathologized way, but my personal favorite description comes from Nick Walker at Neurocosmopolitanism (go read the full article!):
The complex set of interrelated characteristics that distinguish autistic neurology from non-autistic neurology is not yet fully understood, but current evidence indicates that the central distinction is that autistic brains are characterized by particularly high levels of synaptic connectivity and responsiveness. This tends to make the autistic individual’s subjective experience more intense and chaotic than that of non-autistic individuals: on both the sensorimotor and cognitive levels, the autistic mind tends to register more information, and the impact of each bit of information tends to be both stronger and less predictable. (emphasis added)
Walker puts so much useful information into this paragraph. While lists of common autistic behaviors can be helpful, especially when deciding whether an ASD diagnosis might describe yourself or someone you know, they can often seem disjointed and random without an understanding of their underlying cause (and, I think, can contribute to the common uninformed statement that “everyone is a little bit autistic).
But knowing this central difference between the neurotypical and autistic brain can provide a clearer delineation between the two, regardless of potentially overlapping behaviors, and can also explain many of the strengths and challenges associated with autism. For example, autistic individuals can often have excellent long-term memory and fact recall, as well as higher innate abilities to analyze data and detect patterns – all of which makes sense if the autistic brain is picking up on more information (with more internal emphasis), on a cognitive level, than the neurotypical brain. On the other hand, picking up more information with a stronger impact on the sensory level can make coping with everyday life extremely difficult, when “normal” touch and sound and smell can be acutely uncomfortable or overwhelming.
I’ll be going through more of those differences, both positive and negative, later this week, but for now the important point is that all autistic traits and behaviors stem from a fundamental neurological difference, and that autism, this difference in a person’s innate operating system – in the way they perceive, process, and respond to the world around them – does not make an autistic individual any less in terms of personhood, human dignity, ethical consideration, or worth.